"F*ck Where You At, Kid, It's Where You're From."


(by Jeremy Levine, and x-posted from Social Science Lite.)

In Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang chronicles the historical roots of contemporary hip-hop culture. Chang notes the decline of industrial America, the rise of crack, and the prevalence of urban street gangs as three major antecedents to hip-hop. To be sure, it wasn’t gangs themselves that gave rise to hip-hop; rather, the strong territorialism of street gangs directly translated into hyper-territorialism among MCs and DJs as hip-hop spread throughout New York City.

It’s not surprising that we continue to see this pattern today. From Nas repping Queensbridge, to T.I. repping Bankhead, to Trick Daddy repping Miami, to The Game repping Compton, to Bun B repping Houston, to Kanye repping Chicago, hip-hop is most definitely a regionalist genre—with representation spanning the entire U.S.

After watching Notorious, I started thinking more about regionalism in hip-hop—basically, why every rapper in the game tries to lay claim to either a major metropolitan region or an NYC borough. There’s a fundamental problem with this, however: Far too many rappers are grossly dishonest about their humble, urban roots. Take Biggie, for example. As in the movie, he claims to be from Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood not exactly known for safe streets. Well, Biggie actually grew up in Clinton Hill, a very nice and relatively affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. P. Diddy’s Wikipedia page (which his people most definitely edit on the regular) lists his “true” hometown as Harlem. But Diddy grew up in Mount Vernon, a pretty nice lower-middle class black suburb of NYC. My high school basketball team actually played them in the first round of the state playoffs a few times. What about Public Enemy, arguably one of the most politically charged hip-hop groups of all time? They are from NYC’s most famous suburb: Long Island. Younger rappers are also following this trend. Take Kid Cudi. He was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, one of Cleveland’s most affluent (and integrated) suburbs. During his sophomore year, however, he moved to Solon, Ohio, a very nice suburb that contains the state’s best public school. A friend of mine from East Cleveland recently told me that Solon is the new suburban destination for affluent and upwardly mobile blacks. Yet, Cudi never reps Solon, or Shaker Heights for that matter. Nope, he reps Cleveland.

There are some exceptions in commercial hip-hop, most notably Wale who often reps Prince George’s County in suburban Washington DC. But these are few and far between; urban territorialism reigns supreme. Consider all of the beefs over residence: Fat Joe dissing 50 Cent for living in Connecticut, T.I. going to Texas to prove that Lil Scrappy wasn’t from the projects, Shawty Lo most recently questioning T.I.’s claim to Bankhead, etc. And these are just three in the last couple years that immediately come to mind.

It’s one thing for my classmates to say they are from Chicago when they grew up in Northbrook; but these rappers use their “hometowns” as claims to authenticity. It’s a little dishonest, in my opinion. I certainly don’t blame them. Just ask Rick Ross about the need to uphold a certain image to be commercially successful.

But, the suburban roots of some of our favorite (and, black) rappers makes Asher Roth’s claim to suburban supremacy that much more arrogant. The white suburbanites that Roth claims should be his base are literally and figuratively living alongside their favorite black rappers. Newsflash: black people live in the suburbs. And some of them grow up to be famous rappers.

Rakim once rapped “It ain’t where you from, it’s where you at.” But Mobb Deep’s lyric, “F*ck where you at kid, it’s where you from” is more relevant today. Yet when rappers discuss “where” they’re from, they rarely provide the full story. Far too often rappers mislead their audiences, claiming urban legitimacy when in actuality they lived a very suburban life.

Maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with white suburban supremacy from the likes of Roth if rappers were more forthright about their suburban roots.

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  • I agree with the overall message here, but I do think it’s an overstatement to call Biggie and Puff “grossly dishonest” about how and where they grew up..

    Biggie’s home was technically in Clinton Hills, but it was right near Bed Stuy, and although real estate agents place much importance upon that distinction now, residents haven’t always done the same, especially 20 years ago. That area has changed quite a bit since he grew up there, and even now it’s not really affluent per se.. Biggie had what you might call a lower middle class home with his mom but when he was there 20 years ago Clinton Hills had more than its fair share of drug activity etc for him to get involved in, and he only had to a walk a few blocks to do the same in Bed Stuy proper.. so it’s not like he was in Bel-Air while pretending to be in West Philly :) more like living in lower Washington Heights and saying you’re from Harlem, you’re just claiming a similar neighborhood that has a slightly cooler name.

    Puff really does have family roots in Harlem (and its criminal underworld specifically), and has never made a secret of growing up in Mount Vernon. And everything in Mount Vernon ain’t so squeaky clean either, it’s also home to places like Sue’s Rendezvous. :)

    So I think “grossly dishonest” is a little unfair in those cases? But again I get your overall point.

  • Grump

    Could it be a “hood qualifyer” if the schools in your area threaten to discontinue athletic programs, like they’re doing in Mt. Vernon, due to lack of funding?

  • young_

    I’ve long been interested in the lies and exaggerations that rappers feel compelled to use to accumulate “street cred” and “ghetto authenticity”, but I’m not completely sure about this one. I’m nitpicking a little, but while Long Island and PG County might have reputations as middle-class suburbs, those images conceal some serious socioeconomic heterogeniety. Some of the inner-ring “suburbs” of PG County are now as dangerous and infamous as any neighborhood in DC itself. The parts of Long Island where guys like Prodigy and Rakim grew up (I think Hempstead and Wyandanch) are also known for having their share of problems. Also, most of these suburbs are racially pretty segregated, so it’s not really true that “The white suburbanites that Roth claims should be his base are literally and figuratively living alongside their favorite black rappers.”

    By the way, it’s ironic that you quote Mobb Deep because as I mentioned P is really from Long Island but gained his Queensbridge connections through Havoc. He has definitely shouted out Hempstead occasionally throughout his career but has overall been fairly misleading about his roots. P being at Queensbridge but not actuall from QB has actually been a pretty serious thorn in his side, as he’s been robbed, assaulted and insulted by friends and acquaintances of other rappers who are actually from QB.

  • young_

    By the way, I heard that Nirvana and Eddie Veder from Pearl Jam aren’t actually from Seattle either…just saying

  • Cosign with Jay Smooth and Young.

    I understand the overall point, but it isn’t as if there’s some iron wall between the projects and everywhere else. I grew up in Montgomery County, a fairly affluent suburb. But it is only a few miles from DC, and my dad’s home in Southeast was about 30 minutes away. Now, it would be wrong from me to claim some special knowledge of the inner workings of SE – I was in a different world. But that doesn’t mean I had no knowledge of that world, or that I may have found myself involved with some things if I had made different choices. There are gangs in the burbs too. There’s the same inequality, poverty, and disregard for human life – it just doesn’t get a lot of airtime.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks. Especially Jay and Latoya – ya’ll don’t know how humbling it is to know that two heavy hitter bloggers have actually read something I wrote.

    I agree 100% with everything that has been said. I know I kind of imply that Biggie, Puff, and the rest of them lived a very bourgie (or, post-bourgie?)lifestyle…but that wasn’t necessarily my intent.

    I wanted to highlight two related ideas: First, I wanted to problematize this idea of “chocolate cities, vanilla suburbs.” There’s this push to rep a city, or a particuarly famous hood (Harlem, for example) even if rappers are from not-so-nice/modest suburbs. There’s nothing wrong with repping Long Island, and then clarifying that you’re from the “bad part.” The point is that most casual hip hop listeners hear “Harlem” and “Bronx” out of certain rapper’s mouths and it reinforces negative (and racialized) images of these neighborhoods. Your average (white?) hip hop listener doesn’t know that Diddy’s from Mt. Vernon, and that matters.

    Second, When folks like Asher Roth lay claim to the suburbs, they use racially coded language that obscures the heterogeneity (race and class) of American suburbs. There are poor suburbs, there are black suburbs, and there are poor black suburbs. There is tremendous fluidity here – no iron wall whatsoever. And that’s the point – if we talked more open about these issues, then Roth’s racialized marketing strategy of catering to the “suburban” crowd would have fallen on deaf ears.

    So, besides pointing out that sometimes rappers rep the ‘hood under false pretenses, I also wanted to make a commentary on the race/class composition of metropolitan America. I think that there’s a gradient of inequality – like a continuum – from, for example, the Southeast in DC to Bethesda. If there wasn’t a push for urban legitimacy, hip hop could have a huge (positive) impact on the conceptions of the public. Maybe we can challenge some of these stereotypes, and school the general public on the contours of American inequality.

    Specifics notwithstanding, I think my overall point is clear, and I’m glad that it has at least got a couple folks thinking/writing about these issues (even if you correctly note where I got it wrong). Much love.

    Sidebar – according to a Pew Research report from last month, the black share of suburban school enrollment is up from 12% in ’93 to 15%, and their segregation within these districts has declined. Hispanic share is up from 11% in ’93 to 20%, but their rates of segregation have increased. Email me if you want to check out the report.

  • Man, I gotta learn how to make my points more succinctly. Sorry folks – blame academia.

  • kirblime

    i really appreciate this convo, especially regarding the socioeconomic heterogeneity of cities and suburbs. thinking meta, the claiming of instant-street-cred-worthy ‘hoods and boroughs, instead of the more honest naming and of lower-middle class inner-ring suburbs, aligns with serving mass markets where the lowest common denominator constantly gets pushed as the biggest generator of attention and money. our conversations in this country about so many topics truly deserve and require nuance, but if it can’t be described in sound bites and shouted out quickly by a hypeman — it gets no love. if everybody was able to let down the mask a bit, we could make room for so many different perspectives, musical and otherwise. and requiring progressive rappers to prove they can make money doesn’t feel like the right answer either (and frankly isn’t likely to happen). there’s gotta be a normative shift both in what we demand and how and in what the record companies understand to be indicative of success. how do we do that? is it having rap artists be more honest? do they need to form a union so they come clean and collectively expand the space for creating art that ventures from the norm? can music companies work to cultivate fans instead of just serving them unthinkingly? anyway, just rambling here — but interesting post and comments. honesty, in a lot of realms is hard, but a prerequisite for progress.

  • ladyfresshh

    But I always thought the suburbs were where the people eaters/jeffery dahmers lived…jason and freddie didn’t prey on folks in brooklyn…they knew better…amityville…yep killerghosts knew better too…ghostface? slums of shaolin…staten island just sayin…

    Sure again blame hip-hop(again) but I doubt these stereo typical images originated in hip-hop reinforced …sure but that ties into american gender norms as well… again not solely relegated to hiphop